With Seinfeld kaput and Ally McBeal in summer reruns, what’s to stop the average anxious, self-obsessed single person from demolishing his or her cuticles?
English literature, that’s what. Simultaneously invading our stores this spring: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (Viking) and Nick Hornby’s About a Boy (Riverhead), two second novels that have hit the top of the charts Over There, thanks to their comic portrayals of relationship angst. The duo’s U.S. publishers, separate imprints of megaconglomerate Penguin Putnam, are gambling that this new wavelet of introspective, bleakly funny fiction is going to plow straight through a slight language barrier (hey, if The Full Monty could do it…) and bowl over audiences Stateside. ”Nick is British. Helen is British. But the predicaments they write about aren’t British. They’re universal,” says Susan Petersen, president of Viking Penguin and publisher of Riverhead Books.
”Women these days are trying so hard to get everything right,” sighs Fielding, 39, guzzling cappuccino amid a riot of Post-it notes in her chic, flower-filled Portobello Road office. ”You’re supposed to do so much. Have a career, a man [Fielding won’t say whom, if anyone, she’s currently dating]. Look nice, smell good. Do yoga, go to the gym, get your hair done, get nice clothes, cook nice meals. There are just these ideas of what you’re supposed to be, and you just can’t do it all. It’s not fair. That’s how Bridget sprung from me, from that idea of trying to be so perfect. You just say ‘Oh, f — – it.’ ”
Fielding’s protagonist, a scattily ambitious thirtysomething publishing minion engaged in a perpetual, hopeless clutch at ”inner poise,” copes with this catalog of life stresses by compulsively taking account of calories she’s consumed, cigarettes she’s smoked, and fluctuations in her weight. Like our Ally, Bridget dithers over office romance, sometimes falling to the floor in a clumsy heap; unlike Ally, she’s quite often drunk. (Still, she reverberated powerfully with the mostly female editorial underlings at Viking, among whose ranks filched Xeroxes of the Diary multiplied rapidly after Michael Lynton, CEO of the Penguin Group, brought a copy back from London.)
If Bridget’s behavior seems flighty, consider how Hornby’s protagonist in About a Boy, a 36-year-old commitment-phobe named Will Lightman, deals: Though childless himself, he joins a support group for single parents to meet women. George Costanzian though that may be, it’s a step more evolved than Hornby’s previous hero (from 1995’s High Fidelity), a record-shop owner named Rob who sublimates emotional turmoil in compulsive list making of everything from his top five fave movies to the pop songs he wants played at his funeral. (Sound like a John Cusack vehicle waiting to happen? Actually it is, currently in development at Disney/Touchstone with Cusack attached to star and cowrite the screenplay.)
”There is kind of a feeling here that men just can’t cut it,” Hornby says, sipping a grimy mug of tea in a one-bedroom flat with an unmade bed and a left-up toilet seat. ”There really are a lot of single mothers now. I was interested in exploring the tangential relationships that you could have in those kinds of situations.” Recently separated from his wife, Virginia (their son lives with her), Hornby seems less at ease discussing relationships, tangential or otherwise, than sports (his 1992 soccer memoir, Fever Pitch, made him a celebrity in football-mad Britain); his favorite American authors (Anne Tyler, Lorrie Moore, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver); or politics, specifically the changed cultural climate under Tony Blair’s Labour government. Reverently, he recalls encountering Oasis at a 10 Downing Street party, which Fielding, a friend since their struggling freelancer days, also attended. ”The idea that that could have happened with John Major or Margaret Thatcher…the only people who were willing to associate themselves with that government were Jeffrey Archer and Andrew Lloyd Webber and all that crap,” he says. ”Of course, there was a whole culture of opposition. Punk came out of that.”